Burial, cremation, or the 'Gentle Way'? This funeral director offers an eco-alternative

Burial, cremation, or the 'Gentle Way'? This funeral director offers an eco-alternative

The stainless steel basket sits inside the stainless steel container -  Image:  Supplied

By Tamsin Rose

When someone dies, funeral directors will usually give loved ones two options for the body: a cremation or a burial

But the growing demand for sustainability in life - and in death - has seen a rise in eco-alternatives to typical funeral practices across the globe.

Some Queenslanders are even opting to have their bodies reduced to liquid and dust as part of a new technique with green credentials.

So, where are we at and what's changing?

The funeral industry isn't usually on the technological 'cutting edge' of anything.

   Picture of Michael Arnold in a blue shirt

Prof Michael Arnold says change won't happen overnight Image: Supplied

That's according to Professor Michael Arnold, who studies how death and technology interact, at the University of Melbourne.

"The death of a person is an event which calls forth tradition, rather than innovation and change," he told Hack.

But changes do happen, slowly.

In Australia, we've gradually shifted from mostly being buried in coffins to about 70 percent of people now opting for cremation.

And the environmental impact of these common practices - including the leaching of toxic embalming chemicals into the landscape and the energy required for cremations - has spurred on the development of eco-alternatives.

"If you take the view that every step that can be taken should be taken, then one might say we should be looking for methods of disposition, which are much more environmentally friendly," Prof Arnold said.

"We've got some new movers and shakers in."

Last year the world's first human remains composting facility opened in the US city of Seattle.

Picture of the body composting facility in Seattle

The Recompose facility in Seattle looks and feels different to other funeral homes
Image: Supplied

Each body is placed in its own composting pod, alongside other materials designed to speed up the decomposition process.

"The cell is rotated and over a period of what is claimed (to be) 30 days... the body breaks down into compost," Prof Arnold explained.

"The family is welcome to take as much or as little of that compost home with them for use in the garden."

Composting of human remains isn't in Australia yet, but there's increasing interest in natural burials, where unembalmed bodies are wrapped in compostable shrouds and buried in topsoil where they decompose.

And there's a new option for Queenslanders.

"The skin just basically breaks apart"

The Gentle Way was created by Bowen funeral director Jeff Boyle when a client refused to choose burial or cremation when she was pre-planning her funeral arrangements.

"She turned around, she said, 'Well get on your horses, and go and find something better because I'm not dead yet, neither are you'," Mr Boyle said.

He then spent two years researching and developing a new body disposal method that reduces a person's body to dust and liquid.

Jeff Boyle standing in front of The Gentle Way equipment

Jeff Boyle thinks The Gentle Way is the future  Image:   Supplied

"When we get the body, it is placed into what we call a water-soluble body bag," Mr Boyle said.

The body is then placed in a stainless steel steel basket which is then placed in a stainless steel cylinder.

The cylinder is then partially filled with highly alkaline, solar-heated rainwater and the body is left to break down over about 12 hours.

"Then we add 300 litres of water, which is below the body, the body's not underwater, it's basically half up on the body," Mr Boyle said.

"It softens the skin, and then the skin just basically breaks apart."

He said it's similar to when the skin on your hands goes wrinkly and saggy after washing up dishes in soapy water.

At the end of the process, the bones are crushed up and given to the loved ones family, much like in cremation.

And the liquid remains are filtered down to about a quarter of a cup of "DNA-rich" liquid.

Mr Boyle said the liquid remains would probably be good on a garden but, by law, it can't just be handed over, so families choose a pot plant and it's poured in there.

"You wouldn't want to drink it," he told Hack.

After opening to the public earlier this year, Mr Boyle said it has been massively popular.

"We cannot keep up," he said.

"It takes 10 to 12 hours per cycle and because of that, you can only really get one through every day."

Mr Boyle said people have been keen on the method because of its relatively small environmental impact - with the system using solar power, rainwater and leaving very little in the way of physical remains.

"I'm not a greeny, but this thing doesn't hurt the environment at all," Mr Boyle said.

Why should young people be thinking about their own funerals?

Michelle Barnes is an end of life doula in Brisbane.

   A picture of Michelle Barnes

Michelle Barnes wants us to talk about death more  Image: Supplied

She helps dying people and their families understand what's going on and their choices - and she says the experience is easier for everyone if they've thought about it before.

She thinks young people should be talking about death so they can live a good life.
"Start having the conversations. If it's a dinner party, or with your mates, or whatever- if you were to die young, what might you want your funeral to be like, or your cremation or your farewell party?" she said.

"If you had the conversations now, you can get on with living, for whatever length of time that is."

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